If there’s any doubt about Sharon Horgan’s gutsiness, it should be dispelled in the first two minutes of the
premiere. The scene: the end of a lackluster hand-job. Donna, Horgan’s character, looks resigned form the get go. After her fiancé Carl informs her that he’d finished a little bit ago, she stalks off to the bathroom. Carl, unable to find a suitable way to clean himself up, plucks a leaf from the plant on the bedside table, furtively uses it to wipe himself off, and drops it behind the bed.
It’s a marvelous introduction to the series, if only because in that small moment, there are the threads of what make the show interesting. It can balance an acerbic, cynical humor with a curious kind of warmth. It’s no news that the intersection of women, sex, and comedy is fraught territory on television. Pulling’s daring comes from its sometimes brutal awkwardness, and its willingness to allow women to be anything but cute. They’re tactless, confused, petty, and occasionally downright awful people. Pulling allows women characters to be complicated, which is a real accomplishment for a sitcom.
Take the first episode’s breakdown of Donna’s hen night and the halting negotiations she has with Carl’s mother over the rehearsal dinner venue. An overbearing mother-in-law is a staple character in the sitcom world, but Carl’s mother Margaret is beautifully painted. As she and Donna talk about Jumping Joe’s Steak and Grill, Margaret’s favorite restaurant, it’s clear that Donna would rather not have her dinner at a tacky themed American restaurant. Margaret admonishes her. “You don’t get to sell garlic bread to millions of people without knowing a thing or two about food,” she clucks. Donna’s reaction is politeness mixed with dread. Margaret then pulls the real mother-in-law-to-be trump card, the “but if you don’t want that just tell me.” Donna looks at her and nervously singsongs that she, in fact, doesn’t want that. “It’s a little bit…shit?” she admits to an insulted Margaret.
What’s brilliant about this little duet—and about Donna’s character—is that combination of wanting to please people and keep the peace while fighting back. It’s those moments that you wish you and the other person could just laugh about something together, but instead you end up laughing at them. Donna’s hen night is just as bleak. Her maid of honor Tanya plans an early night at a bingo parlor as Carl plays video games with his friends. Donna’s friends, Tanya, Louise, and Karen, are counterpoints to the slick, cosmo-carrying Sex and the City crew. (Though I suppose, if pushed, you could make a good Samantha and Karen parallel). The hen night is a drab affair, tatty and quiet. Tanya describes life with her new wee one to Donna’s horror. “He got a little tiny erection and weed on my shirt, and I thought ‘that’s what life’s about!’” she coos. After Tanya wins the bingo jackpot and refuses to split up the earnings, the foul-mouthed alcoholic Karen nabs fifty quid from her and buys the remaining crew some bottles of champagne.
It’s clear from the beginning that Donna is settling for Carl, but her conversation about the wedding is heartbreaking. “So why are you marrying Carl?” Louise asks. “I didn’t really like any other boyfriends,” Donna replies glumly. It’s that familiar creep. Five years into a long-term relationship, things are settled and comfortable. A wedding seems like the next logical step more than a real goal. But Donna can’t even remember what it is she saw in Carl in the first place. Sure, as Louise said, he’s dependable. He’d never hit her. But is that enough? Karen has Donna play a game where she imagines Carl is dead, and Donna, after protesting, agrees to imagine the scenario. Then Karen looks at her and smiles wickedly. “There,” she says. “Better, isn’t it?”
It’s then in the club that Donna has her moment of revelation, and decides to break it off with Carl. Her conversation with Carl is as excruciating a thing as I’ve ever seen on television. I’ve often thought that Lena Dunham’s Girls owes a debt to Horgan’s fearless cringe-inducing powers, and Donna’s attempt to break things off with Carl’s shows why. After Carl, his collared shirt buttoned to the top button, plops into Donna’s lap and demands a kiss, he shares with her some great news: He bought a house. Donna looks at him blankly, welling with disdain. “I’m not sure I want this,” she tells Carl. “What, breakfast?” he asks, nonplussed. “No, marriage,” she replies.
Carl’s breakdown veers into the melodramatic. He hyperventilates and runs into a door, sobbing, before vomiting on the kitchen floor. The argument they have isn’t really about feelings so much as obligation. “But you said you would!” Carl protests, as if Donna was his mother refusing to take him to Disneyland. He convinces Donna to go to the rehearsal dinner with him despite the news—it’s at Jumping Joe’s because, of course, Margaret decided that she’s paying for it and any input from the couple is ultimately trivial—and spends the whole time in a baseball cap and sunglasses swilling wine. He announces that Donna has called off the wedding in the middle of her speech thanking everyone for being a part of their special moment.
Margaret follows Donna out and pelts her with rolls. “Get back in there,” she hisses. Donna explains that she’s not happy, and that she and Carl aren’t right for each other. “Who gives a shit about you and Carl,” Margaret yells. “I’ve got a group of people in there waiting for a wedding.” This is the conflict at the heart of Pulling: the emotional weight of things against the way that people actually operate. Is the turmoil in the pursuit of unsteady happiness worth sacrificing something solid, if bland? Is there actually much of a chance for satisfaction in either approach?
Fittingly, the episode ends with Donna crying to Karen and Louise on the couch. “She can stay with us,” Karen says, “in the spare room.” Louise furrows her brow until Karen finally explains: “The shit room.” “Ooooh, the shit room.” The ladies lead Donna to a small room packed with spare belongings and let her survey her new fate. She turns to tell them that it’s probably for the best, but they’ve already shut the door, leaving her there alone.
- Another great moment: When Margaret is talking about Carl’s dignity and he comes out on his knees sobbing
- Karen: “Three units of alcohol? There are three units of alcohol in my urine right now.”
- Louise is the master of advice that’s actually horrible. “I don’t think you can destroy a man and then go back to him.”